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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Federal Communications Commission on Friday ordered phone companies to adopt a 711 code that would allow the handicapped and the needy easy access to services. It also set aside two three-digit codes for information on road conditions and to coordinate nonprofit services for the needy.

Proponents said millions of speech and hearing-impaired people in the United States could benefit from the phone services, which use so-called "N11" dialing combinations, such as the 911 emergency number and the 411 operator information code.

Commissioners also approved a plan that requires broadcasters to provide a service that allows visually impaired people to hear a narration of the TV programming.

The FCC also:

Reserved the "211" telephone dialing code to connect callers with nonprofit groups that provide food, shelter or crisis counseling. Set aside the "511" code as an information source for traffic reports and road conditions in the caller's area.

Millions could benefit

The new 711 code "presents an opportunity not to have missed opportunities," said Pam Holmes, who is deaf.

Holmes, of Madison, Wisconsin, is among millions of speech- and hearing-impaired people who would benefit from the creation of the three-digit number which would make it easier to reach special operators who convert calls to text messages.

The 711 code consolidates dozens of toll-free numbers now in use and provides hearing people who want to call a deaf person with a single number they can easily associate with the service -- like "411" for information or "911" for emergency.

Bell Atlantic, now part of Verizon Communications, already has rolled out 711 service throughout most of its 13-state Northeast region.

The company tracked its results in Maryland and found "a dramatic increase in the number of hearing users who were dialing through relay just because it was easier," said Richard Ellis, director of strategic alliances for Verizon.

The relay service center received 18 percent more voice-initiated calls and 10 percent more total calls over seven months.

It will be up to local governments and charities to work out how to implement -- and pay for -- the new numbers.

Video description

In addition, the commission required TV network affiliates in the nation's 25 largest markets to implement a so-called "video description" feature for the blind or vision-impaired , in which a person narrates and describes TV programs as they're being broadcast.

Boston PBS station WGBH and the Turner Classic Movies cable channel currently offer video description. The cable channel is a division of Time Warner, the parent company of CNN.com.

"We've tried to address every aspect of the virtual world and make it accessible," said FCC Chairman William Kennard.

Kennard said there was a time when putting ramps on street corners -- called curbs cuts -- was a big deal. But now people accept that as the norm.

"We want to get to a place in the virtual world where this is not debated," he said.

In the TV plan, NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS top-market affiliates initially would have to provide four hours a week of narrated prime time and/or children's programming.

Cable operators and satellite companies with more than 50,000 subscribers would have the same requirement for each of the top five national non-broadcast channels they carry.

Commissioners also required that emergency information in local newscasts be provided to the sight-impaired.

The requirements take effect beginning April 2002. The FCC will later consider expanding the number of required markets.

In the service, descriptions of events are squeezed into the natural pauses already in the program. For example, television audiences would be told that a character is running down the street or hugging a friend.

Typically, this would be done using a separate audio track that viewers could switch on or off. All televisions made since 1993 can receive this secondary soundtrack channel.

Industry resistance

The National Association of Broadcasters has said that it would cost each station more than $160,000 to implement the plan. The cable industry said the market -- not the government -- should address the issue.

"There is no consensus on this matter even within the affected interest community," said David Beckwith of the National Cable Television Association. "We think this is an area best left to industry efforts, not government regulation."

The commission also is expected to set standards to ensure that closed captioning for the deaf is available to people using digital TVs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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This page is dated July 2000